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The Nutshell Series: Baroque Pitch in a Nutshell


(above photo by fantastic traverso maker and musicologist Roberto Bando)


Welcome to my debut blog post! I am so glad you are here. Let’s discuss “historical pitch.”


What makes the note A, A?

...

If you’re like most people, I might as well have asked you why blue is blue. Or maybe that would have been easier because you could have just quoted some sciency thing about nanometers and color wavelengths bounding across different Latin-dubbed parts of the eyeball. But A…that’s tough to define. Is it a fingering? A function? Can you quote me some sciency thing about frequency? Maybe.

Today, pitch is measured by a unit known as Hertz. The higher the Hertz number, the higher the frequency. The generally accepted modern A4 lies at A=440 Hertz, or A=442 in some orchestras in Europe. (Side note: this is a very important piece to consider if you are an American thinking about purchasing an instrument from Europe or vice versa–not that I’ve ever accidentally purchased a piccolo at 442 or anything…)

There! you think. A=440 Hertz! Scientifically proven. Simple. Done. And as far as those Europeans go, let’s just chalk it up to a cultural difference.

Alright, but then, why do baroque recordings sound half a step lower? Why does your traverso play Ab when you finger A? In his book, “The Story of ‘A,’” Bruce Haynes points out that a pitch is defined by two “coordinates”: pitch name and frequency. That means, in theory, the letter name of any given pitch can fall at any frequency so long as all other pitches maintain their respective proportions to that reference. Let’s look at the baroque flute as an example.


above: a "Frequency-o-meter" measured with an "A needle"

The majority of the baroque flutes produced today play at A=415 Hertz, a half step lower than our modern A=440. This is precisely why your A on a baroque flute sounds like an Ab on the modern piano.

There! you think. Pitch must have started out at A=415 Hertz, then slowly, over three hundred years, just like slowly, over the course of an orchestra concert, the string players got sharper and sharper until we arrived at the A=440 of today. (We love you, string players).

There is something to be said about your high school music director’s notion, “it’s better to play sharp than out of tune.” It is a noted phenomenon that slight sharpness is generally more agreeable to the ear than slight flatness because it sounds brighter and more vibrant. This is the same theory that inspired the British Philharmonic movement (1850-1880) to soar their A’s to new heights, reaching altitudes of 447-455 Hertz towards the end of the 19th century. Even if this ascension were not a conscious decision for everyone like it was for the Philharmonic movement, similar to a game of telephone, the pitch may have sharpened gradually over the course of the last three hundred years.


above: we cannot blame this one on the string players.

A solid theory. Well, it would be a solid theory, if baroque pitch really was A=415. We can't blame this one on the string players.

What! you think. I assure you that my baroque flute plays at precisely A=415! Furthermore, all the baroque flutes I tried at the Wenner booth at the Boston Early Music Festival play at A=415!

I don’t doubt it - they should play at A=415, unless you chose one at a special pitch. If you are looking to purchase your first baroque flute, you should get one at A=415, as that is the most generally accepted modern baroque pitch, but that doesn’t make it historic. A true, historic “A” could be widely different from country to country, city to city, and town to town. Let’s dip a few toes into the world these flutes come from.

After hearing about or studying Handel’s exotic travels around the continent, we often forget just how immensely difficult and harrowing travel was in the baroque era. John Hearfield writes, “a ‘road’ [before the 19th century] was really just a right-of-way. Often it was no more than a well-trodden path,” and most of these roads found themselves in the same condition they were in hundreds of years before. Then, there were the highwaymen to contend with, hanging around every corner of these old, unmaintained paths–it was downright treacherous, and the sheer popularity of travel proved this; in his book about historical transit, Philip Bagwell attests the vast majority of 18th century Europeans never traveled farther than 14 miles from where they were born. Handel was an outlier.

This more localized approach to life created more localized ways of measuring everything, from pitch to units of length. Elam Rotem of Early Music Sources has an interesting theory that pitch from city to city may have been impacted by discrepancies in measurements. He remarks that the foot, like pitch, was also not standardized at the time. This meant that an 8-foot pipe on an organ in Venice could have been an entirely different length (and therefore, pitch) than an 8-foot pipe on an organ in Paris, leaving instruments with more flexible tuning (strings) and easier/cheaper to build instruments (flutes and other winds) to adjust to the organ.

These were the days before the popularization of tuning slides, too. Traveling flutists, or those working in divided cities, had either multiple flutes or multiple interchangeable middle joints (called corps de recharge) that could modify their flute to play at different pitches. If an original flute has corps de rechange, they generally have a multitude. For example, the Berlin Collection has a flute that belonged to Frederick the Great that possesses eight (surviving) joints of corps de recharge on just one of his many flutes. Owning a flute case only rivaled in size by a hiking backpack can mean one thing - musicians at this time were ready for "A" to be anywhere.


above: FTG performs in his palace. Was this to prevent the need to transport all his corps de rechange? We can only speculate.


These were long before the days the humble Korg tuner graced our stands, too. There was no device capable of measuring Hertz, in fact, accurate methods of measuring frequency did not exist until J.H. Scheibler’s invention of his Tonmesser in 1834 (and this was essentially a wooden board covered in 56 tuning forks and measured with a metronome, so some skepticism on its accuracy is warranted.) Hertz did not come about until 1887. Not that any of this matters too much, we are talking about organs and wind instruments here. Anyone who’s ever been subjected to playing flute in a freezing, rainy, October marching band show knows just how far a swath pitch can swing due to the temperature and humidity of the day - and even though flutes and organs were indoor instruments, convection heating and Nordic Cool were not exactly options in the 1700’s. Organs, for example, were known to change by up to a semitone from summer to winter.

All of this is to say there is no way to impose a specific measurement of Hertz onto historical tuning. To try would be similar to attempting to definitively measure the length of a scoop of melting ice cream and subsequently assert all scoops of melting ice cream are that length.

But there’s at least a ballpark, right? Of course! But it’s pretty big. It is believed that A’s as low as about 322 Hertz existed in England for solo viol playing (Praetorius, 1619, and Mersenne, 1636) and as high as around 574 Hertz in Old Luthern German organs (Praetorius, 1619). This is a difference of about a fourth above and below the A we know and love. These are the absolute extremes, of course, not the norm, but it is important to recognize they existed. Flutes and their corps de rechange have been found most commonly between 392-465 Hertz, but it is interesting to note that historic pitches are not always lower as the stereotype suggests, but can be higher than our modern pitch.

We can attribute some of these pitches to nationality, for example, pitch tended to be high in Venice and could be quite low in Paris. This isn’t a hard and fast rule, though; widely different ideas of “A” have even been found within the same country, like low pitch in the South of Germany and high pitch in the North. It doesn’t stop there. The same town can have multiple A’s–the French show evidence that higher pitch was favored in orchestra and a lower pitch in chamber music. There can even be multiple A’s within the same performance. In my own work with the Düben Manuscript Collection, I have come across many scores in which a piece will have the vocal and organ part in one key and the instrumental parts a whole step up, a decision I believe was made to accommodate a very high pitched organ in the Swedish court. This phenomenon still exists today, like in the saxophone family and brass, but now they’re called “transposing instruments.”

So then, why A=415? Why is that the chosen pitch for the modern baroque player? There are a variety of reasons. The most convincing one for me is convenience. At the beginning of the early music movement, harpsichordists often had to play with groups at the standard A=440 and groups who wanted to play at a lower “historic” pitch. A=415, being one semitone away from modern pitch, was perfect for a transposing harpsichord to shift their keyboard down one string. Everyone is happy.


above: Is Bruggen to blame for 415? Our beloved early music forefather may have had a hand.


In a nutshell: for our musical forefathers, “A” was what they made of it. They rolled with the humidity punches and laughed in the face of the temperature fluctuations. Our flute ancestors had multiple flutes or interchangeable middle joints at the ready. Musicians were flexible, way more flexible than we are. They adapted their ears and their instruments, and out of this, they created pitches that were localized and celebrated the specific and unique cultural heritage of their respective regions, be it purposeful or accidental.

This all sounds terribly romantic and exciting, but don’t worry, our arbitrary standardized pitch isn’t all bad. It sure is nice knowing you can play your A=415 Buffardin in Venice and Paris.





Sources:


Bagwell, Philip Sidney, and Peter J. Lyth. Transport in Britain: From Canal Lock to Gridlock. Hambledon and London, 2006.


Haynes, Bruce. A History of Performing Pitch: The Story of "A". The Scarecrow Press, 2002.


McGee, Terry. “Some ‘Cures’ for High Pitch.” Terry McGee Flutes, http://www.mcgee-flutes.com/HighPitchCure.htm.


Mendel, Arthur. “Pitch in Western Music since 1500. A Re-Examination.” Acta Musicologica, vol. 50, no. 1/2, 1978, pp. 1–328. JSTOR, https://doi.org/10.2307/932288. Accessed 11 Mar. 2023.


Rotem, Elam. “Historical Pitch??” YouTube, YouTube, 27 Sept. 2017, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=si6QNVn40GM.


Segerman, Ephraim. “A Survey of Pitch Standards before the Nineteenth Century.” The Galpin Society Journal, vol. 54, 2001, pp. 200–18. JSTOR, https://doi.org/10.2307/842453. Accessed 11 Mar. 2023.

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Beautiful writing and what an incredible blog post- i can't wait to read your next one. I love your style-- i have learned so much from reading this-- especially the fact that pitch was almost a nonchalant issue- because it had to be with all of the uncontrollable factors of early music making. Favourite quote: "All of this is to say there is no way to impose a specific measurement of Hertz onto historical tuning. To try would be similar to attempting to definitively measure the length of a scoop of melting ice cream and subsequently assert all scoops of melting ice cream are that length." (BRILLIANT ANALOGY)

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